Ursula Werner’s brilliant debut novel, The Good at Heart, is an inspiring story in an inauspicious setting. Like the popular 2015 novel The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, Werner’s book focuses mainly on the lives of women desperately trying to maintain a semblance of order and domesticity in a small European town during the ravages of World War II. While Hannah’s story provides immediate empathy for a French family’s struggle to survive the misery inflicted by the invading Nazi army, Werner’s builds more slowly as she describes three dramatic days in July 1944 among the Eberhardt family living in the small German town of Blumental on the Swiss border. The paterfamilias, Oskar Eberhardt, heads the finance ministry within the Nazi government in Berlin, and the dark cloud of Hitler’s Nazis colors the mostly mundane life of Oskar’s wife Edith, daughter Mariana, and granddaughters: Lara (13), Sofia (9), and Rosie (5).
Ms. Werner reported many peremptory rejections from potential publishers of a novel that purported a sympathetic treatment of Germans during the Hitler era. My own strong doubt that there were “good at heart” Germans in that era had been shaped by the classic 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremburg”. In that riveting film, Spencer Tracy plays the chief judge at one of the post-war trials in which civilian German administrators and judges who collaborated with the Nazis stand accused. The film is ruthless in uncovering the fundamental Nazi complicity of even “good upstanding Germans” of that era. Werner’s novel starts with a quote from the doomed Anne Frank desperately insisting in her journal that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Ms. Werner tells a dramatic and at times spellbinding story. She is an accomplished writer and storyteller and, once engaged, I found it hard to put the book down. Her principal character, Mariana, is a complex, passionate mother, daughter, adulterous lover, and committed partisan in the small anti-Nazi resistance movement in Blumental. Her personal drama provides much of the novel’s lifeblood. Mariana’s mother, Edith Eberhardt, is believably portrayed as a devoted wife who nevertheless harbors disillusioning doubts about her husband’s status within the Fuhrer’s inner circle. Mariana’s three daughters are all expertly depicted as children determined to continue their lives as children despite the adult-created anxiety and destruction all around them.
This historical novel is based on stories that Ms. Werner collected from her own German family. She reports that she was long troubled by veiled reports of her great-grandfather’s involvement in Hitler’s government. Her aging relatives in Germany finally acceded to her requests for stories and documents and to her surprise, she found that her great-grandfather had been exonerated by his Ally-appointed judges after it was determined that he had assisted Jews in leaving the country. It’s clear that Ms. Werner maintains strong ties with both her family and her native country and her novel is filled with accurate historical background, realistic geographical setting, and an uncanny sense of what it meant to be an anti-Nazi German living in the police state of that era. This is a book that both warmed my heart and challenged my mind, opening both to the possibility that some Germans had in fact retained their full humanity and ultimate goodness despite the thick moral darkness of the times in which they lived.